For all the skittery flashbacks and paranoid atmospherics, there isn’t much to Unknown in the final reckoning — and this isn’t a bad thing. At least it doesn’t dig into the seeming metaphysical mystery suggested in early scenes, and its schematic screenplay, concocted from a Didier van Cauwelaert novel, doesn’t quite abandon its more interesting questions, concerning identity and purpose. But a couple car chases and furniture-breaking fights later, the fact that Unknown is a Joel Silver production is increasingly apparent. Again, this is not the worst thing.
Liam Neeson lurches competently into frame as one Dr. Martin Harris, an American botanist flying into Berlin for a biotechnology conference with his wife Liz (January Jones, effectively icy, but hardly acting). Having forgotten a briefcase back at the airport, he leaves Liz at their hotel and hops into a cab, only to end up in a coma after an accident sends his cab off a bridge and into the freezing river.
Coming to in the hospital four days later without any identification, Martin is befuddled as to why his wife isn’t waiting at his bedside, his memory shot through of holes. But he pieces together enough to get back to the hotel and find Liz at a reception. Problem is that not only does Liz deny she knows him, but she also stands alongside another man (Aidan Quinn), who wears a nametag identifying him as Dr. Martin Harris. The couple puts the confused Martin off, and has security haul him away.
Deciphering that he will get no help from authorities, Martin makes his way through the wintry streets (all those glass skyscrapers accentuating his sense of chilly disconnection) as he tries to put together some semblance of the person he was. His somewhat unlikely counterparts in this search include Gina (Diane Kruger), who was driving the cab when he had his accident, and Ernst Jürgen (a canny Bruno Ganz, walking away with all his too-few scenes), an ex-Stasi agent who functions as a kind of private detective. Complicating the process is a pair of glowering goons, dispatched to kill of Martin and anyone who happens to be near him.
Unknown works most effectively is in its earlier scenes, as the action is layered with a disconcertingly dead-on dream logic. The circuitous chases and multiplying dead ends mimic the standard plot components of nocturnal drama, efficiently changing direction each time you think you’ve sorted out where it’s headed. Once the curtain begins to be pulled back on the reveal, though, the film switches from psychological thriller (“Who am I?”) to a quest for vindication and vengeance, the sort of thing that Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford once specialized in.
Unlike Neeson’s last foray into muscular, foreign-set action cinema, Taken, however, this film doesn’t trade on racism and sadism. The chases and fisticuffs are cut to the quick by director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan), with the focus returning rather relentlessly to Martin’s dismay over his sudden uncertainty of his own existence. By the time a serenely creepy Frank Langella shows up, it’s clear the film isn’t only interested in setting up the next big set piece.
The movie creates an effective air of dislocation and mystery, enough to put it outside the restrictions of the action genre. It’s a patient film that knows perfectly well how long it can feed out the string before the audience loses interest. This patience turns into a little eye-rolling skullduggery as the conspiracy around Martin coalesces and he becomes unnaturally resourceful (who knew a botanist from New Hampshire could make the tires on his car squeal and smoke like that?). But for a time, Unknown leaves the viewer stranded without a map, and unlike too many films of this kind, it actually makes you want to find your way out of its maze.